Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: $ is for self-sufficiency

In Brief

$ is for self-sufficiency

A series of psychological experiments shows that thinking even casually about money makes people feel more independent and self-reliant. They become less interested in helping others, more reluctant to accept help, and even more likely to avoid the company of others.

The experiments are reported in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. College students were asked to perform various tasks, some in neutral conditions and others after being "primed" with suggestions of money. They formed jumbled words into sentences, some with and some without monetary connotations. They read essays about growing up rich or growing up poor. They faced computer monitors showing dollar bills, neutral pictures, or blank screens. They sat at desks with or without stacks of bills at the side. Then they were watched as they performed various tasks while confederates of the experimenters offered help, requested help, or tried to join them.

Researchers measured the time subjects persisted before asking for help, the time they spent helping, and the distance they kept from others. The results were consistent: A mere hint of money made a surprisingly big difference. Subjects exposed to money spent less time picking up pencils spilled by a confederate and donated less to a university student fund from coins they had been given. In one experiment, participants were asked to volunteer time to help another student who was a confederate of the experimenters. Those who were primed with the sight or thought of money spent an average of 25 minutes helping; the others spent an average of 42 minutes, more than 50% longer. Asked to give directions by a confederate who pretended to be confused about a task they were both performing, subjects spent about half as much time helping if they had been exposed recently to words or pictures suggesting money.

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